Sienna is one of the most charming towns in Tuscany, and is one of Italy's most attractive regions. The well-conserved medieval streets and piazzas are home to the annual festival of the Palio, a neck-or-nothing horserace which takes place in Siena's main square (the Campo). The town can be reached as a daytrip from Florence or Rome, but it's also a good place to stay for several days, soak up the atmosphere, and visit the surrounding Tuscan countryside.
Sienna Tourist Attractions and Holiday Information
The historical town is around three searing ridges of high ground within the old city walls. The town is divided into three sections. Within each of them there are a number of the districts known as contrade. It's easy to walk around the historic centre of Sienna on foot, exploring as you go, but if you're the organized type you may find it helpful to take the terzi one at a time.
The Tourist Information Offices and museums supply guides to each one. The Terzo di Camollia, contains the gigantic and shadowy Basilica di San Francesco. This dates back from the late 13th century. The Dominican church, the Basilica of San Domenico; (The Sanctuary of St Catherine of Siena; the former Medici Fortress), which is now a pleasant and panoramic public park.
Our favorite spot that we discovered is Piazza del Campo (otherwise known simply as il Campo). This is the secular heart of Siena, a sloping amphitheatre of a square, lined with cafe tables and thronged with tourists, school parties and locals. The Campo is the dramatic setting for the Palio horserace. The piazza's focal point is the Palazzo Pubblico, the public palace, which dates back to 1250 and is still the seat of the Municipality.
The Palazzo is also home to some fine frescoes, and makes a good beginning to your sightseeing tour. At the ticket office in the internal courtyard you can buy a range of tickets. These give admission to differing numbers of Sienna's attractions, and some are valid for several days - a good way to save money, if you're planning a longer stay.
A combined ticket gives you access to the Museo Civico inside the Palazzo, and also to the tall bell tower, the Torre del Mangia. The tower is an excellent way to view Sienna, the views over the town and countryside are breathtaking and help the visitor understand the geography of the town.
Be warned though, that the climb is also breathtaking. A limited number of people are allowed up at a time, and you'll understand why when you see how narrow and poky the stairs are. The final climb up to the highest bell on its lofty framework is a fearsome ladder . Don't consider making the climb if you have motion sickness or fear of heights or are very unfit.
The museum highlights include superb frescoes by Simone Martini, whose Maestà religious scene is one of the oldest examples of Sienese painting and glows with colour and life. Even more fascinating is a fresco cycle by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1319-1348), the Allegories of Good and Bad Government.
In one series, a 'good' ruler presides over a prosperous city (Sienna) and productive countryside, while the effects of bad government are shown to be dismal misery and urban deprivation. Also worth seeing are an exquisite rose-tree made of gold (a gift to Sienna from a pope), and some beautiful carved choir stalls with religious illustrations (one fine example shows the dead clambering from their graves on Judgment Day).
Heading uphill from the Campo, you arrive outside the monumental green-and-white-striped Duomo, Sienna's cathedral. Before the collapse of the city's fortunes, it had ambitious plans to enlarge the edifice into the largest in the world. You can still see the facade and one side of the new cathedral, which would have incorporated the older building as a mere transept.
Work was stopped, but the grandiose ambitions of the Sienese were preserved in the freestanding striped walls. The interior of the cathedral itself is ornate and decorated, lined with the heads of saints. The floor is composed of extremely fine inlaid marble scenes - some are covered to preserve them from wear, but others are usually exposed in roped-off sections.
Sienna History, the Palio and the Contrade
Early in its history, this charming little town was a Roman colony. The later town retained pride in its past, with many statues and reminders of Romulus, Remus and the legendary she-wolf. In subsequent centuries it became a prosperous and important medieval town, a rival to nearby Florence (which it famously defeated in battle in 1270).
But the Black Death in 1348, and a decline in the town's banking business changed its fortunes. A large proportion of the population died, and Siena's star fell. Major building work on the vast cathedral extension was stopped, never to be restarted. Medieval Sienna is so well-preserved because after the middle ages there was little development or industrialization.
Sienna has kept alive unusual and renowned traditions. In what is though to date back to a historic tribal system, the town is divided into 17 contrade, or districts. Each contrada has its own animal emblem (a caterpillar, a giraffe, a goose etc.) and its own strong identity. The rivalry between contrade is expressed twice every year in Sienna's biggest tourist attraction, the Palio.
Horses representing the contrade (and blessed in their local churches) are raced perilously around the perimeter of Piazza del Campo; the whole event surrounded by an orgy of historical pageantry, flag-waving and cheering. The Palio takes place on 2nd July and 16th August; if you're planning to visit then, it's best to book your hotel well in advance.
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